The Craft of Short Fiction: CHARACTER CHARACTER simply refers to the people in a work of fiction, but beyond this simple definition, there are more complex ways of thinking about and responding to the characters in a fictional work. Many of you said that a good short story has characters you can “identify with” and “relate to,” and I agree with you that these are the first things we probably notice. But some of the best, most memorable characters that we encounter in reading literature are the ones that we least relate to or identify with, the ones who seem completely different than us, who baffle and bewilder us. We walk away from these characters surprised, amazed, shocked, or incredulous. They are interesting and sometimes memorable to us precisely because we don’t exactly identify with them or relate to them. It’s probably a good idea to remember that these strange or uncanny characters can be just as fascinating and provocative as the ones we fully understand and relate to. Readers want characters that engage them, and whether that means people they can recognize or people they are meeting for the first time, the important thing is that the characters in a story make you feel something. Making you care about their characters is one of the biggest responsibilities a writer has, because if the characters flop, the story is probably going to be disappointing. Characters are weak when readers don’t care about them at all. If as a careful, sensitive reader you become apathetic or bored with a character, that may signal an important failure. In your thinking about character, try to create space for the ones that you can’t relate to or identify with. Try instead to observe character as closely as you can; notice the motivations, the behaviors, the traits that make this person tick, that make this person individual. One of the distinguishing features of the modern short story (as opposed to older forms of narrative like the legend or the tale) is that its characters are psychologically complex individuals rather than “types.” A really excellent short story will not rely on stereotype or formula to develop a main character, although minor characters may sometimes strike you as types because they are not as fully developed as the main character. Here’s a brief vocabulary for discussing “character”: Protagonist/Antagonist. The protagonist is the leading character and the antagonist is an opposing force (sometimes a character, but not always; “poverty,” for example, may be an antagonist, or “old age”). The protagonist is often the most psychologically complex of any of the characters in the story. One famous exception (although this is epic poetry, not short fiction): Satan is the most complex character in Paradise Lost. Round/Flat character. A round character has a fully developed, multidimensional, multi-faceted personality. Usually the protagonist, the main character is the round character in the story. A flat character, by contrast, is one-dimensional in that you may only get to see one side of his or her personality. Dynamic/Static character. A dynamic character is someone who grows and changes during the course of the story. Usually the main character is a dynamic character (but not always); the point of the story might be to reveal this change. A static character, by contrast, is someone who does not measurably change much during the course of the story. It’s rare for a main character to be static, but one example that comes to mind is Phoenix Jackson in “A Worn Path” by Eudora Welty. Phoenix is a 95 year-old grandmother caring for her grandson on her own. She must make an arduous trip over a mountain ridge into town to get him medicine. Her journey is an obstacle course of barriers—everything from senility, to exhaustion, to blindness, to racism—but NOTHING can stop her. She is determined to complete the trip. That nothing can puncture her courage or change her heart is a triumph of the will that readers can admire. She is a static character, but not a stagnant one. Think about the characters in the stories you’ve read so far. Who are the protagonists and what are the antagonistic forces they are up against? What are the roles of the minor characters in the story? Do they shed light on the main character in some way? How deep can you take your observations of personality and behavior and motivation? In the end, does the character change in any significant way? If the character doesn’t change, does that stasis seem to you to be a triumph or a tragedy?
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